John Barach has the most entertaining and rhetorically flourishing comment on this passage. In talking about the branches that eventually cut off, he says “These branches were not stuck to the tree with Scotch tape.” The only problem with this quotation, rhetorically speaking, is that it should have been duct tape. Although, I don’t know if that would have worked rhetorically, come to think of it. Duct tape is too strong. The quote, by the way, is in AATPC, pg. 150, line 47.
Here is the text: 1. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7. If you abide in me, andmy words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
It is the contention of the FV folk (and Norman Shepherd: see Call of Grace, pp. 89-90), that the passage makes no ontological distinction between branches that stay in, and branches that get thrown out. Barach, for example, says that “they were genuinely in Christ, but they were taken away because they failed to abide in Christ” (AATPC, pg. 150, lines 47-48). He qualifies this statement in lines 51-52 with this statement: “According to Scripture, not everyone who is in the covenant has been predestined to eternal glory with Christ.” So Barach is not claiming that the temporary “in Christ” status of the eventually-apostatizing-branches is equivalent to decretal election. He does equate this status to covenantal election in lines 68-70 on page 151. So, it would be God’s choosing of Israel/church which is in view. Barach does not limit this covenantal election to corporate status, however. He goes on in line 89 to say that covenantal election applies to individuals as well. So the question boils down to this: what, precisely, are the benefits which in-covenant but eventually apostatizing people have? Are they “saved?” My contention is that FV authors claim too much for this covenantal status. Barach claims that it is fine to say of these people that Christ died for them (lines 149-152 on page 153); Wilkins claims all the ordo salutis benefits for these apostates on page 59 of _Federal Vision_. Christ died only for the elect, and the ordo salutis benefits apply only to the elect, as has been said by the WCF in previous posts.
But we must deal with a critical issue here in the exegesis of John 15. What about the warnings? As Norman Shepherd seemingly wisely indicates: “If this distinction (outward and inward branches) is in the text, it is difficult to see what the point of the warning is. The outward branches cannot profit from it, because they cannot in any case bear genuine fruit. They are not related to Christ inwardly and draw no life from him. The inward branches do not need the warning, because they are vitalized by Christ and therefore cannot help but bear good fruit” (Call of Grace, pp. 89-90). R. Fowler White has the answer to this. It is decisive. He says “The warnings of God’s Word, as a means of grace, retain their integrity because the decree of election is realized through them, not apart from them…when the warnings against apostasy and wrath come, we are not to presume our election and to ignore them; rather we are to prove our election by trembling at the threats of God’s Word and embracing its promises.” In the face of this clear exposition of the value of the warning to the elect, Shepherd’s criticism of the traditional position falls utterly to the ground.
Exegetically speaking, there are several indications that there are ontological distinctions within the covenant, and I am picking my words very carefully here. Some branches are “fruit-bearing,” and others are not. This indicates an ontological distinction. I used to work on an apple orchard. When pruning apple trees, there are branches that grow straight up, but will never bear fruit. These are called “suckers.” they grow differently from fruit-bearing branches. They are pruned away, since, far from growing in any positive direction towards fruit-bearing, they actually steal sap away from the fruit-bearing branches. However it be interpreted, the suckers that are there in the vine are not doing the vine any good whatsoever. They are fundamentally different from the fruit-bearing branches. At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, what is the sap? It is not saving grace. These branches are attached to Christ’s body, the church, not by Scoth tape. They really are part of the visible church. Plainly here, the vine is the visible church, which includes the elect and those who are not. But these branches are fundamentally different. In fact, the branches that do not bear fruit are dead branches. The same is true in the parable of the wheat and tares. They both grow up together in the visible church. But the tares are never wheat! So also here, the branches that do not bear fruit never bear fruit.